SHOULD MARIJUANA BE LEGALIZED IN THE UNITED STATES?
For over 40 years the United States has struggled with how the use of marijuana should be governed. On one side, proponents argue that it should be legal in the same way alcohol and cigarettes are, or legal in small amounts. They do not feel that people who have small amounts for personal use should be prosecuted in any way. Recently, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet has suggested that keeping marijuana illegal may do more harm to society than its actual use does. They point out that the negative effects from use of alcohol are far greater than any negative effects from the use of marijuana (Joffee & Yancey, et. al., 2004).
However, those in favor of maintaining marijuana's status as an illegal substance argue that marijuana is not harmless and that in some ways it is very like other drugs few would want to see legalized. They fear that if the use and possession of marijuana is decriminalized, usage rates will go up, resulting in increased problems for society (Joffee & Yancey, et. al., 2004).
While both sides make strong points, the fact is that humans have used substances that are not entirely good for them, such as alcohol and tobacco, for thousands of years. In the cases of alcohol and tobacco, the government response was to regulate their use rather than outlaw it. This approach should be considered for marijuana as well.
ACCESS TO MARIJUANA
It is understandable that parents and others would worry about substance abuse in young people. Current law prohibits the use of both alcohol and tobacco to individuals below a certain age. Even though marijuana, unregulated, is available to high school students, according to the National Institutes of Health, use of marijuana in high school seniors is down 4% from its high point in 1997 (Portillo, 2005). However, regulating access to marijuana remains a real problem for the United State's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). An estimated 21 million teenagers use the Internet, and the Internet has become a relatively easy place to go to acquire marijuana (Portillo, 2005).
The DEA reports that in 2004, over 1,700 people were arrested for mailing controlled substances via the postal service. However, they did not say how much of that was marijuana. Experts on marijuana point out that in particular the seeds have virtually no odor, and that, combined with their small size, makes their shipment through the mail very difficult to detect (Portillo, 2005).
The DEA acknowledges that use of the Internet makes laws regarding marijuana markedly harder to enforce (Portillo, 2005). Use of a search engine easily locates many Internet sites where marijuana, pipes, papers, and other paraphernalia can easily be purchased, along with seeds and detailed instructions on how to grow the plant (Portillo, 2005). The DEA recognizes the problem, and works with the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a subsidiary of the United Nations (Portillo, 2005). However, other countries are reconsidering their approaches to marijuana and considering various steps designed to either decriminalize the personal use of marijuana or significantly lessening the criminal penalties for doing so (Portillo, 2005). While the INCB recognizes the need to control internet access to marijuana, they also recognize the difficulties involved in accomplishing that.
In addition the European Union (EU) reported increased use of marijuana in Europe over the last ten years and passed a resolution urging EU members to clamp down on both cultivation of marijuana and internet sites selling it located in their countries (Portillo, 2005).
OBJECTIONS TO MARIJUANA USE
The active ingredient in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol, often shorted to THC. Critics note that it acts on the same area of the bran that helps create a condition of addiction with some other drugs. Critics note negative effects from THC on thinking, behavior, short-term memory, attention span, ability to concentrate, motivation and problem solving. They note that long-term use increased the impact of these problems. The American Academy of Physicians notes that THC affects coordination, judgment and other cognitive skills that can lead to accidents, especially auto accidents, and note that smoking marijuana is at least as hard on the lungs as tobacco. Other studies have tied the use of marijuana to various mental health problems (Joffee & Yancey, et. al., 2004).
Those who favor the legalization of marijuana, however, note that correlation does not equal causation. The use of marijuana and the development of a psychological disorder may occur together, but that does not mean that the marijuana caused the psychological difficulties. It may be in fact that it was the psychological problems that led to excessive use of marijuana. Such patterns are seen with alcohol as well.
In fact, those in favor of the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana point to alcohol and cigarettes as an example. People become markedly poorer drivers after just two drinks, often before they would approach the minimum blood level set for saying a person is "driving under the influence" (Deutch, 2004). Alcohol abuse often causes the same problems seen with extended marijuana abuse, and more in addition, and yet alcohol remains legal.
In the United States, selling marijuana can result in up to five years in jail plus fines of up to $250 for a first offense (Portillo, 2005). However, other countries have taken a different approach. In some Australian territories, marijuana use is now legal. Both Canada and Switzerland as well as other European countries are reconsidering how they want to handle marijuana use (Joffee & Yancey, et. al., 2004).
The Netherlands is often used as an example of how governments might handle marijuana. Interestingly, most people don't realize that the possession of all but a very small amount (less than an eighth of an ounce) of marijuana is illegal in the Netherlands (AP Worldstream, 2004). The law allows use but forbids possession (Joffee & Yancey, et. al., 2004). Nevertheless it is sold openly in many coffee shops, especially in Amsterdam. It is sold much as alcohol is in American bars, even though the practice is illegal (Deutch, 2004). In spite of marijuana's easy availability, however, use of the drug among teens in the Netherlands has dropped in recent years. Around 21% of the Dutch population aged 15 to 65 admit they have tried it. This compares to about 38% in the United States (Deutch, 2004). Other Dutch research shows that currently about 10% of male Dutch teens use marijuana, while about 7% of female Dutch teens use it, This puts The Netherlands more or less in the middle for usage when compared to other European countries, and makes their teen use significantly less than that in the United States (AP Worldstream, 2004).
Some officials in The Netherlands, however, have continuing concerns. One institute notes that the amount of THC in the marijuana being sold in their coffee shops has doubled since 2000, making the weed markedly more potent than it used to be. Reasonable people might worry, for instance, about a driver not realizing that the joint he or she just smoked was much stronger than previous ones, and be more of a driving hazard than the person was aware of. Some believe that the government will consider re-categorizing it with such drugs as Ecstasy and cocaine, which would make it a much more serious crime to possess or use it (AP Worldstream, 2004). Meanwhile, a conservative element in the government wants to act now to criminalize use and possession of all amounts of marijuana, and they are experimenting with banning its sale completely from towns that border other countries (Deutch, 2004). The purpose of this would be to curb tourists who might come to The Netherlands simply for easy access to the drug.